Arts & Culture » Culture

Color of Sustainability

Two local businesses redefine reuse


The environmental buzzwords of the 1990s--reduce, reuse, recycle--aren't heard as much in this century. The new term is green, an ambiguous banner used to label everything from carbon offsets to cleaning products to garden flowers that don't suck up too much water. Does creating green art, then, mean crafting a project that is environmentally sound or does it imply using a different mindset in looking at the creative process? For two local businesses founded on the importance of reusing, being environmentally conscious doesn't necessarily mean being green as much as it means creating a sustainable system in which the art is only one component.

David Gapen operates the Reuseum, a haven of old electronics and new creations in Garden City. The overflowing shelves are lined with defunct gadgetry of previous eras, requiring visitors to make their way through a labyrinth of TVs, radios and equipment of less-recognizable origin, stripped of circuitry and reassembled into something new. A plastic bubble with dangling rubber gloves built into the interior lays in the corner. A Tesla coil rests in the back. A tiny robot powered by a solar module and a rubber band racer with a scratched techno-mix CD for a wheel sit on the work bench.

"It sort of is a junk store, but it's also a library for geeks," said Gapen. "Stuff is not flying off the walls but it supports our idea." This idea is that old electronics, which would otherwise be thrown away, can instead provide a wealth of knowledge and creative potential.

For Gapen, green is an empty term. With companies clamoring to repackage products as green to win over an increasingly environmentally sensitive consumer base, the meaning has become obscured.

"In America, green is a marketing concept. I don't think green, but instead I think sustainable. Sustainable is a word of function. It creates a cycle that helps us all to float. I think you can do a better job with a different word than green. There are so many better words to describe the diversity of what's happening now," said Gapen.

The difference is all in perspective, according to Gapen. While many people might not think much about the growing accumulation of obsolete electronics as technology advances, the premise of the Reuseum is to put those electronics to a new purpose. Where one person sees junk, another person sees an opportunity for creation.

"We take broken printers, mine them for motors and use the motors in the workshop. This is art to me, this idea. Also it's cheap--it's the blue-collar man's way to prototype," said Gapen. Those printer motors will find a new use in an upcoming project called BEAMbot, a workshop to design simple robots and teach skills in soldering and electrical circuits. An upcoming project for the next Ignite Boise will see participants race and design a rubber-band-powered dragster. BW walked away with one such kit.

For visual artists, reusing materials has long been a standard operating procedure. Many variations--recycled art, found art and now green art--have arisen over the years, but all imply a similar idea of finding art in what another person would discard. For Tracy Cochran, the idea goes further than just reusing materials.

Cochran first had the idea for the Re:Use Market three years ago after she got her degree in Interior Design and became aware of the vast amount of material that would otherwise be tossed. The Re:Use Market functions as a nonprofit depot for unorthodox art supplies. Tables are heaped with multi-colored suede scraps, shelves hold bins of bottle caps, tiles, wallpaper, fabrics and other materials that the artistically minded could put to use.

"The cool thing is it's always different. Sometimes we see some really funky stuff," said Cochran. "I think one of the main reasons I do this is that everything you see here would be at a landfill. Artists see fun, unique possibilities in things that would otherwise be thrown away."

Like Gapen, Cochran is quick to bring up sustainability. For her, sustainability goes beyond reselling art supplies bound for the trash to reconsidering the way that the nonprofit organization is run. This can mean anything from requesting fabric companies not to send wasteful sample material to setting up a carpool for Boise customers to reach the store in its new Nampa location.

"This goes deeper. We all need to make more sustainable choices in business," said Cochran. A gambit of local artists and craft enthusiasts frequent the shop, using the materials for a plethora of artistic endeavors. Also, Cochran notes that reused art supplies offer a major boon to underfunded school art programs. She often sees teachers and parents stocking up on supplies for future class projects.

Some of the reused materials can be seen in their second incarnation for sale at the White Pine, a hip, eco-friendly clothing boutique owned by Diana Shafer. Recently, the Re:Use Market relocated from its Linen District location in Second Chance Building Materials Center on Grove Street in Boise to the back of Shafer's Nampa location. Since opening last September, Shafer has sold the work of local artists, such as handbags constructed from recycled fabric and wallets made from wallpaper.

"Recycled art has definitely been popping up lately," said Shafer. Shafer offered Cochran the space after meeting her at the previous smaller location and believing in the importance of what she was doing. These grass-roots connections between people are where sustainable art and culture flourish.

"It's about redefining connections," said Gapen, describing the cycle of sustainability that perpetuates the Reuseum. Such connections recently sent Gapen on a "parts run," an intense day-long road trip that took him to the farthest corners of southern Idaho to meet a network of individuals, all with scrapped electronics, who share a vision of those electronics serving a higher purpose. It's this perception that separates what some would call refuse from what others would call creative opportunity.

"The beast is the landfill. There is so much dirty junk people abandon. What we've done instead is learn from it," said Gapen.

The Reuseum, 4566 Chinden Blvd., Garden City, 208-375-7507,; The Re:Use Market, 115 13th Ave. S., Nampa, 208-794-9661,